Despite much of the evidence based community centring their discussions around the optimal training volumes for hypertrophy or whether or not training to failure is superior to repetitions in reserve, often times we forget the necessity to discuss the practical side of training and learning how to train a specific muscle group effectively.
This article is a bid to shift gears momentarily and discuss how to improve your back training.
Have you ever struggled to feel your back musculature when pulling?
For many years I struggled to develop a sound mind-muscle connection with my back musculature and it really hindered my gains. Not only did I struggle to feel my back muscles working when I performed my seated rows, pull downs etc, but I noticed many others experienced the same issue.
The more I coached, the more I realised it wasn’t just me that couldn’t feel my upper back when performing horizontal or vertical pull variations. A lot of my clients experienced the same issues.
So here are 4 tips to help you improve your mind:muscle connection with your back and start making some serious inroads on developing your posterior chain.
Control thy scapulae.
Many of the muscles in the upper back assist in moving the scapulae, otherwise known as the shoulder blades. Without adequate control of your scapulae, performing the functions the back musculature is responsible for will be super difficult. Consequently, your back development will suffer and frustration imminent.
Two fundamental movements of the scapulae, that when mastered, will drastically improve your back training are:
Scapulae retraction/protraction; and
To learn how to retract/protract the scapulae and move your shoulder blades forward and back I highly recommend performing the scap push up daily and as a warm up before your workouts.
If you are new to this movement or struggle to perform it without bending your elbows, letting your butt sink or feeling all jammed up and stuck be sure to start with a wall-scapulae-push-up. This a regressed version of the standard push up position as is performing it kneeling.
To learn how to elevate/depress the scapulae and master the scaps in a vertically direction start performing shrugs with a lat pull down. This will improve your control of the scaps as they move up and down which is critical when performing pull downs or pull ups.
Letting the scapulae elevate and rise up to the point where your shoulders are touching your ears increases the stretch placed on the lats. The bigger the stretch, the larger the range of motion (ROM).
Both of these movements will help you train your back through a larger ROM, which is key for hypertrophy. Moving through a greater ROM will recruit a larger pool of muscle fibers (meaning more muscle will be stimulated) and also forces the muscle to create more tension as they now have to contract and move your bones through a greater distance. All good things when it comes to muscle growth!
Use the following cues on your rows:
Reach and stretch;
Shrug back and down;
Pull elbows behind you;
Squeeze shoulder blades together.
Use the following cues on your vertical pulls:
Let your shoulders touch your ears;
Shrug down hard – shoulder blades in back pocket;
Pull elbows to hips
Squeeze shoulder blades together.
Hopefully, once you have nailed these to fundamental movements, you will notice an improved mind-muscle connection with your back and greater control in your rows and vertical pulling exercises.
Chariots of fire
Two often forgotten functions of the lats are shoulder extension and lateral flexion.
Not only do I recommend incorporating these functions into your programming, but also include them in your warm up. This can be a great way of introducing a novel stimulus to the lats which may ignite them before you begin a workout.
Try performing single arm stiff arm pull downs with a band or cable for 2-3 sets of 10-12 reps, aiming to not only draw your elbow down to your side, but at the end of extension (as your elbow meets your hip) squeeze down to the side and laterally flex your lats!
Light weight, for real Baby!
A huge mistake and common problem I see with many when they perform their horizontal rowing and vertical pulling movements is using loads that are too heavy. The biomechanics of a row/pull down are such that the most difficult portion of the lift is when the hands are closest to the torso.
Note: the hands being close to the torso does not mean the upper back is fully engaged, more on this shortly.
Most rowing and pulling variations follow a descending strength curve. This means that muscle tension increases as you move through the repetition and the movement is most difficult as you reach the end point of the repetition.
As a result of incorrectly selecting loads aka using weights that are simply too heavy, the upper back will not experience sufficient tension during the entire ROM and the arms/shoulders will over compensate.
Just because a certain load feels easy in the early portion of a repetition, doesn’t mean the load will provide the same level of difficult throughout the remainder of the range.
So remember, the he back is weakest as the weight is pulled towards the torso and therefore if the loads are too heavy and the back is not strong enough to shoulder the weight during the most difficult phase of the lift, you are squandering away serious stimulus.
My advice if you cannot feel your back during your pulling exercises is to:
Decreased load and ensure your back has the strength to move the weight not only at the start of the movement, but also during the difficult portion of the lift as the hands move closer to your torso.
Move deliberately when initiating movement (ensuring that the start of a horizontal row begins with retraction and the beginning of a vertical pull kicks off with depression of the scapulae).
Avoid compensatory movement – no swinging or excessive changes in torso angle.
Squeeze it like it owes you money
Another useful strategy I use with my clients who can’t feel their back is to incorporate longer isometric holds in their horizontal rows and pull downs. Actively contracting the upper back for 3-5 seconds on each rep within a set will increase metabolite build up and elicit a greater pump effect. This can go a long way in helping you feel the muscle – it burns!
Try holding each repetition within a set for 3-5 seconds, thinking about your back muscles squeezing and contracting against the load as you resist any movement in the opposing direction.
BONUS TIP – My favourite rowing variation: The single arm cable row.
Hopefully these tips were useful and if you found the article informative, be sure to share it with your training partner, friends and family!